What Happens When An Idiot Reflects on a Beheading: On Dostoevsky’s Reading of the Death Sentence and Certain Death in “The Idiot”


We can have little doubt that most Yiddish writers read The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky. And it is odd that, up until now, few schlemiel theorists have looked into the parallels between Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin (“the idiot”) and the schlemiel (which we find in writers like Mendel Mocher Sforim, I.L. Peretz, and Sholem Aleichem).   The only schlemiel theorist to suggest a relationship between the schlemiel and anything Russian is Sanford Pinsker, in The Schlemiel as Metaphor.   However, he doesn’t mention the link vis-à-vis Russian literature so much as Russian folklore. And he does so in passing.

What I would like to do, in a preliminary manner, is read Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin against different schlemiel characters.   One odd scene in his novel, in which there are no parallels in Yiddish literature, is Prince Myshkin’s recounting of a beheading. In contrast to Sholem Aleichem’s portrayal of death, as apprehended by Motl (in his last novel Motl, the Cantor’s Son), Dostoevsky’s portrayal has more depth and pathos. Aleichem stays on the surface, Dostoevsky does not. Dostoevsky’s character has insight into death, while Aleichem’s character does not.

Although Prince Myshkin is absent minded and simple, when it comes to death something else emerges. At the outset of the book, Prince Myshkin recounts a beheading to the secretary of a General he is visiting.   He comes upon this subject when the secretary asks him about Switzerland, where the Prince (like Dostoevsky himself) had spent some time in before returning to Russia. The conversation turns toward the topic of capital punishment. The secretary notes that Russia doesn’t have capital punishment (which, the commentators note, was false and there are different ideas as to why Dostoevsky would write this).   Prince Myshkin says, however, that he witnessed capital punishment in France; namely, beheading: “In France they always cut their heads off”(22).   The secretary, astonished, asks about whether they scream and the Prince gives a description to illustrate how they don’t even have time to “scream”:

“Hardly! It’s instantaneous. The man is laid down, and a broad knife drops, it’s a special machine called a guillotine, heavy, powerful…The head bounces off before you can blink an eye. The preparations are the bad part. When they read the sentence, get everything ready, tie him up, lead him to the scaffold, then it’s terrible! People gather, even women, though they don’t like women to watch”(22).

Myshkin, who in the novel is recognized for his talent of drawing portraits, descries the face of the dying man in detail and, with acute precision, shows that he thinks of deep philosophical questions about death. He relates them all back to the commandment “do not kill” and shows us that he is truly puzzled by the act of murder by way of guillotine. It gives him a taste of fear, an experience that is, for him, alien since it is contrary to his innocence and trust. It is a discovery:

“And I tell you, believe it or not, he wept as he climbed the scaffold, white as paper. Is it possible? Isn’t it terrible? Do people weep from fear? I never thought it was possible for a man who has never wept, for a man of forty-five, not a child, to weep from fear! What happens at that moment with the soul, what convulsions is it driven to? It’s an outrage on the soul, and nothing more! It’s said, “Do not Kill.” So he killed, and then they kill him? No, that’s impossible.”

The biggest discovery, however, is that something is done that is “impossible”; namely, that a person is killed for killing.   As the prince speaks, the narrator tells us that he “grew animated” and “a slight flush came to his face.” The secretary looks now at Prince Myshkin and wonders whether the Prince is really an idiot; “perhaps he, too, was a man of imagination and an inclination to thinking”(23). This possibility suggests that the idiot and the thinker – who reflects on death and justice – are opposites.

When the secretary observes that “It’s a good thing there’s not much suffering…when the head flies off”(23), the Prince replies with a distinction between “certain” death (by the “death sentence” and guillotine) and “hope.”

“Think: if there’s torture, for instance, then there’s suffering, wounds, bodily pain, and it means that all that distracts you from inner torment, so that you only suffer from the wounds until you die. And yet the chief, the strongest pain may not be in the wounds, but in knowing for certain that in an hour, then in ten minutes, then in half a minute, then now, this second – your soul will fly out of your body and you’ll no longer be a man, and its’ for certain – the main thing is that it’s for certain.” (23)

Certain death is the worst kind of death since one is forced to know it; in contrast, uncertain death is better:

“To be killed by legal sentence is immeasurably more terrible than to be killed by robbers, stabbed at night, in the forest or however, certainly he hopes he’ll be saved til the very last minute. There have been examples when a man’s throat has already been cut, and he still hopes, or flees, or pleads.”(23)

Myshkin tells us that the “death sentence” is too much for the mind.   It drives it mad and deprives man of his humanity. But this isn’t his idea. He evokes Christ as the source of this distinction: “Christ spoke of this suffering and horror. No you can’t treat a man like that!” And this reference makes sense since Dostoevsky, in a letter to his niece, made it know that he wanted to create a comic character whose beauty was modeled on Christ.

However, in lines like these, one doesn’t find comedy so much as a seriousness that is rooted in a deep understanding of suffering. Aleichem’s Motl, in contrast, is not a portraitist; he is a caricaturist. His father’s death is distant from him. He can’t understand it. Perhaps the difference between Aleichem and Dostoevsky’s approaches to death, via the fool, is that Aleichem is more interested in maintaining an ironic relation to death while Dostoevsky is not. By doing this, Aleichem creates a comic ambivalence about the schlemiel that Dostoevsky does not with the idiot.   There is a tension between hope and skepticism in Aleichem gesture. Moreover, Irving Howe tells us – by way of Saul Bellow – that in Aleichem there the laughter we have at Aleichem’s Motl cannot displace the tears felt by Aleichem’s readership who all knew suffering intimately. Who had survived Pogroms and violence.   The relationship with suffering, via the schlemiel, is different.   Dan Miron suggests that this relationship is different because Motl is a figure of a progressive Jewishness that wants to leave a dying Europe behind for America, the land of discovery.   In America, he doesn’t discover the “death sentence” or “beheading.” And unlike Prince Myshkin who, in Russia, discovers that the fool is the target of society, Motl, in America, discovers life and hope.

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